Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Carson McCullers on Longing and Loneliness

Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, in the deeply southern state of Georgia. Daughter of a jewelry store owner and an aspiring pianist, her trajectory towards literary stardom began quite early, with the publication of her story “Wunderkind” at the age of 19 and at twenty-three, the commercial success and critical praise for her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

The novel centers around a deaf-mute in a small Georgia town and the four characters who reveal their pain, loneliness and longings to him. The novel is peopled with memorable characters and punctuated by stark, dramatic events and yet, it is the general feel of the novel, the pervasive chasm brought about by each person’s isolation—the wanting and the regretting and always, the longing—this brings about the novel’s lasting effect.

Actual tragedies that occur are presented quickly, without emotion, such as a wife’s death:

"Then in the afternoon of the eighth of October there was a sudden cry of pain from the room where they slept. Biff hurried upstairs. Within an hour they had taken a tumor almost the size of a newborn child. And then within another hour Alice was dead."

Biff is a café owner, emotionally stunted and closed off from the world because of his marriage, which has been dead for some time. And yet, with the actual death of Alice his younger self emerges, as he remembers their early courtship and the feelings that accompanied it. He contemplates people and life and death and struggles to continue mundane tasks. McCullers seems to be saying: Yes, bad things happen but the spaces between these events, the afterthoughts, the musings, the regrets, that is life.

Another character who confides in the deaf-mute Singer is Mick Kelly, an adolescent girl with great artistic longings. Drawn to music and plagued with bouts of intense feeling, she is the primary caregiver of her two younger brothers. When one of them accidentally shoots a neighbor girl, the event itself is told again in a straightforward fashion. Afterwards, as Mick careens between a desire to punish her brother and the intense love she feels for him, McCullers takes her time. Again, longing and loneliness. The tender pain of love. This is life.

"Mick got into bed with Bubber. He wouldn’t let her touch him or snug up to him. Then after another hour of crying and hiccoughing he went to sleep.

She was awake a long time. In the dark she put her arms around him and held him very close. She touched him all over and kissed him everywhere. He was so soft and little and there was this salty, boy smell about him. The love she felt was so hard that she had to squeeze him to her until her arms were tired."

Carson McCullers knew a thing or two about pain and longing. A bout of rheumatic fever inspired her to cease her studies at Juilliard School of Music and enroll instead in creative writing courses. Her marriage to James Reeves McCullers Jr. was stormy. Both were alcoholics and rumored to be bisexuals. There were affairs and fights and eventually, they separated. She was never in good health and two strokes in 1947 left her partially paralyzed and utterly devastated. There was a suicide attempt shortly afterwards. She had remarried her husband in 1945 but he also dealt with depression and when he suggested another suicide attempt, this time jointly, she fled and he ended his own life.

Always infirm, struggling with relationship difficulties, dependent on alcohol (she drank hot tea with sherry while writing, all day), McCullers certainly knew something of human isolation and suffering.

I read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in June of 1997. This week, I re-read the book when it was chosen by my book club. I had forgotten the quiet power of this novel, the chords it touches in me, the many levels of its mastery. And I certainly hadn’t realized how much effect this novel and others in the same vein—Southern gothic—have had on my own writing. I read McCullers’ masterpiece during the period when I was writing my novel The Qualities of Wood, a story about a young woman with longings and loneliness, influenced by a tragedy but living in the spaces between.

I went back to my journals from the time to see if I had written anything about McCullers' book and found that I hadn’t. Instead, the writing in my journal during those years centered around a few topics: writing and its difficulties and pleasures, self-doubt and self-appraisal, and the main show: our struggles with infertility. Certainly, the most pronounced period of longing I have ever known. That all of these influences converged during the writing of my novel makes perfect sense to me now.

If you haven’t read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter or Carson McCullers’ other works: The Ballad of the Sad Café and Member of the Wedding, delay no further. I didn’t enjoy Reflections in a Golden Eye quite as much, but it’s still worth a read. Detailed biography, courtesy of Oprah, here, and a story about an unlikely luncheon with McCullers, Marilyn Monroe and Isak Dinesen here, courtesy of Kelly. 


  1. I have The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in my bookcase. I need to dust it off and give it a read.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka